Houston Ballet's astonishingly prolific artistic director, Stanton Welch, is internationally acclaimed as one of the ascendant neo-classical choreographers. Currently bringing his second year to a close, he has given us such jaw-dropping productions as Tales of Texas, Divergence, Indigo, Madame Butterfly, as well as the recently premiered showcase for the Ben Stevenson Academy concert, Studies, and Houston Ballet's gala-inspired Bolero, which spotlighted the entire company, set to the exotic, mesmerizing score of Ravel. Even Welch's trifles are replete with his signature theatricality, professionalism, inventive daring, and absolute love of dance. What's left? A whole lot, really; all those "classical" ballets, for example, and Welch is eager to take them on.
In April 2003, he set Don Quixote for BalletMet Columbus, where he is artistic associate; Firebird, also for BalletMet, in its shorter suite form, opened May 12; Sleeping Beauty premieres for The Australian Ballet September 14; and Swan Lake premieres at Houston Ballet February 23, 2006.
For all their iconic stature, the sublime Big Three Classical ballets (Marius Petipa's Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker‹even his lesser Bayadere, Raymonda, and Corsaire) cry out for recension. Hard to believe, but none of these ballet gold standards are definitive versions, unlike, say, our contemporary gold standards like Balanchine's Serenade or Stravinsky Violin Concerto. What we consider "classic" ballets have had so many different interpretations, that the originals are but shadows of their former selves. Passed down through oral teaching, years before the invention of step notation, think of them like the Telephone Game, where "Aunt Mary's House Is On Fire" gets transformed through the final player into "Aunt Mary's Passed Out on the Front Lawn." A bit remains from the first, but the intention's gone with the wind.
For example, Tchaikovsky's sublime score for Swan Lake has never been the same since its 1877 premiere, when the choreographer was Julius Reisinger. His work got dumped after the less-than-successful opening, and Tchaikovsky was dead by the time of Petipa's triumphant restaging, when the music was altered, transposed, and rearranged. If a choreographer used all the music that has ever been used for Swan Lake, "you'd be in the theater longer than Nicholas Nickelby," Stanton says, "and have to come back after dinner.
"What ends up happening with all those ballets," Welch explains, "is that each dancer has a slightly different version, and as each goes off to stage that ballet, they make that version their own. Both the Kirov and the Bolshoi will argue until they're blue in the face that they have the real Swan Lake, but they're remarkably different. There is no true, true version, so I have some level of flexibility. Then I make a version that is as authentic as I need and want it to be. I can change it, because it's now 'my' Swan Lake.
"Swan Lake has more in it that survived because it was choreographed so well. The Black Swan pas de deux is nearly exactly the same around the world, and that shows how good it was when it was first choreographed. They all have that: parts that are authentic‹even Don Q‹but the rest is up for grabs."
Relevance‹to our time and to dance technique‹is a favorite topic with Stanton and the reason why these classic works need to be staged anew. In Welch's Firebird, the evil Kastchei becomes an evangelical preacher who mesmerizes the town into a world of black and white. When love occurs and eyes are opened, in a blazingly grand coup de theatre, Welch has everyone strip off their monochrome costumes to reveal the Technicolor underneath. Everyone's a potential Firebird. Sleeping Beauty's subject becomes the battle for power between the very bad Carabosse and the very good Lilac Fairy. Aurora's still there, doing her famous Rose Adagio with her four suitors, but the guys are busy with variations of their own, not just waiting around with steady hands to partner her. In his 1997 version of Cinderella for The Australian Ballet, Welch has the bedraggled heroine find true love not with the Prince, but with a servant.
"All contemporary classical choreographers owe it to classical ballet to continue passing this tradition forward. What I try to do with all these ballets is make them a little more logical, or at least logical to my current generation. Having people trust that this is not going to be a boring museum piece, but rather something contemporary and something that has relevance to their lives.
"I'm still a traditionalist. The second you call it Swan Lake, it has to have a lake, it has to have a swan who's a girl, and it has to be a love story. I'm committed to certain things. That's just my job. That's the fun of doing ballet, setting yourself a style and then working within that realm. Even if the realm is no style at all, it's still a realm. That's the hard part."
D.L. Groover writes on the arts for the Houston Press and OutSmart Magazine. His book Skeletons From the Opera Closet, co-written with C.C. Conner, Jr., is in its fourth printing.